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Harvard's profound presidential plight

By Adrian Tomaszewski Feb. 14, 2024


Six months is all it took for Harvard President Dr. Claudine Gay to resign amidst issues  of  antisemitism and plagiarism. How a career could sink so rapidly into the vast ocean of American academia is a stunning example of the damage inaction causes amidst controversy. 

 

Gay’s involvement in Harvard began in 1998 when she earned her Ph.D. in African American studies. In 2006, Gay joined Harvard’s staff  as a tenured professor of government, later becoming the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. After Harvard President Lawrence Bacow announced his retirement, Gay was chosen as his successor, becoming the very first Black president in Harvard’s history.


Signs of danger for Gay’s presidency came following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict when antisemitism and Islamophobia erupted on campus, including calls for Israeli-Jewish ethnic cleansing through the complete elimination of the state of Israel and graffiti calling all Palestinians terrorists. On Oct. 8, a day after Hamas’ initial attack on Israel, a statement signed by over 30 student groups was released, blaming “the [Israeli] apartheid regime” for inciting the conflict. The letter received intense backlash for seemingly condoning the attack and showing no sympathy for Israeli casualties. However, it took Gay two days and two separate statements from when the letter was released for her to directly condemn Hamas’ violence and state that the university’s values did not align with the document. Gay’s lack of immediate response to the document was detrimental to Harvard’s image. Yet, factoring in the intense flames of controversy surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict, a starkly divided study body and immense conservative pressure placed upon Gay, her delayed response  was understandable.


“It is important to keep our shared humanity in mind when discussing  antisemitism and Islamophobia, especially when what we say and do can so deeply affect other people. However, the media tends to sensationalize many events, and their coverage of Harvard’s on-campus rhetoric was definitely no exception,” Harvard Freshman Alexander Lee said.  

On Dec. 5, Gay testified before a Congressional committee with University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth. When asked if calling for the genocide of Jewish students would violate university policies, Gay, in a vague and legalistic manner, stated how “we embrace a commitment to free speech, even views that are objectionable.” Instead of emphasizing Harvard’s free speech stance, Gay could have addressed the escalation of on-campus antisemitism head on before the Congressional committee. Clearly stating support of the Jewish community and students while condemning hate would have helped quell the situation. 


In part from Gay’s mistakes, major billionaire donors such as Len Blavatnik and Bill Ackman began withdrawing from the university despite having donated hundreds of millions in the past, which is especially damaging to Harvard since 45% of its revenue relies on donations. By trying to please both sides, she failed to charm either, hurting the university greatly in the process.


“Gay’s response was inadequate because despite the gravity of the situation at hand and as president of Harvard, she did not show much disapproval to the public promotion of genocide on campus. Her position of power allowed her to say much more to contain the situation yet she did not,” Junior Sarah Wong said. 

Harry Kang Art

The hearing was disastrous for Gay, leading to widespread condemnation and even more demands for her resignation from over 70 Republican Senators. Yet it is important to recognize that perhaps not all the backlash Gay received solely originated from dissatisfaction with her response to the Harvard student groups. The Israel-Hamas conflict is a highly contested issue—supporters of both sides possess strong emotions and opinions. It is possible that some critics of Gay used her initial letter as an outlet for their predisposed biases, seeing her lack of immediate response as a viable opportunity to express their hidden discontent and anger. Furthermore, Gay’s race may have caused unjust accusations—her backlash and resignation came with the broader conservative push against Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies. When Harvard moved to protect Gay after the surge of outrage, many criticized the university for protecting Gay on account of her race, denoting her as underqualified. While no side is completely accurate in the DEI controversy, the emphasis on Gay’s race signifies a deeper issue concerning racial prejudices that should not be masked by the focus on Gay’s response and trial.  Another blow came when conservative scrutiny opened up accusations of plagiarism in Gay’s dissertations. As reported by the Harvard Crimson, these allegations mostly include omitting quotations for direct quotes. 


Although these allegations were comparatively minor, they were enough for the Harvard Corporation board to break their silence and announce unconditional support for Gay, despite condemning her late response to the document. She committed the same plagiarism that certainly would have led to consequences for any student, and this seemingly preferential treatment was undiscussed in any statements by Gay.


Gay’s final fall finally came as more plagiarism allegations emerged, more donors withdrew from the university and Congress expanded its search into her. Gay announced her presidential resignation “with a heavy heart but a deep love for Harvard” on Jan. 2 and returned as a professor of African American studies and the board replaced her with board member Alan Garber.


“It feels like everybody on campus is just hoping for the best. Many were hurt by this situation last semester, so we are all working on returning this semester  with more compassion and understanding,” Lee said.   

Gay failed to effectively handle controversy, opting to remain a silent statue while someone was drilling into her foundation. Instead of disassociating from extremist student groups, she took a misleading stance at best; instead of condemning on-campus antisemitism in Congress; she responded vaguely; instead of openly addressing the plagiarism allegations, she issued unnoticed corrections. Now Gay bears the consequences of her inactions on her community and students.

 

About the contributors



Adrian Tomaszewski

staff writer


Adrian Tomaszewski is a junior at Leland High School and is a staff writer for the Charger Account. During his free time, he enjoys swimming, cooking, listening to music, ranting about politics to unsuspecting victims, and playing video games.




Harry Kang

artist


Harry Kang is a junior at Leland High School who works as an artist and the page editor for the Viewpoint page. In his free time, he likes to procrastinate and listen to old Korean music.

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